Mapping Blackness in Yugoslavia and Post-Yugoslav Space

Birthplace of Josip Broz Tito, former president of Yugoslavia — Kumrovec, Croatia

96-year-old Fatmire is one of the few remaining members of a small and relatively unknown Afro-Albanian “Black” community in Montenegro, a small former Yugoslav Mediterranean country.1 Fatmire’s ancestry lies in the Ottoman African slave trade that began in the 18th century. This community is often “forgotten” and rediscovered from time to time. That this community is referred to as “Black” provides a context to understand the regional relationship with Blackness and its various uses and meanings in former Yugoslav space. Afro-Albanian community members are embodied reminders of the multifaceted constellation of European Blackness that is integral to the establishment and construction of local identities. A global color line based on the epidermalization of Blackness defines them and exemplifies the mobility of the “racial contract” that maintains Blackness as inflected and distant from the normative whiteness of the majority. Framing these identities by way of Blackness is a novel approach, particularly in former Yugoslav spaces where identities are typically in reference to ethnic or religious categories. However, temporal and spatial shifts in the signifiers of difference in Yugoslavia and Post-Yugoslav space reveal the forces of Blackness, whiteness, and therefore race and racialization as “floating signifiers” dependent on the context in which they are situated.

As the above example illustrates, Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav ties to Blackness span centuries. In fact, the political might and soft power of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (1945-1992) was connected to the Black and Brown Global South. Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav leader from its inception until his death in 1980, connected Yugoslav geopolitical promise and might to these countries in 1956 when he—along with the then leaders of Egypt and India, Gamal Nasser and Jawaharlal Nehru—established what would become the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) on the Croatian island of Brijuni. The first conference took place in the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade in 1961 and included representatives from 24 member nations, all of which were former European colonies except Yugoslavia. The NAM platform against Soviet and Capitalist blocs reflected the potential of the power of small nations. Through NAM, Yugoslavia came to represent a middle way between the Capitalist West and Communist (Soviet) East.

Even prior to the establishment of NAM, Yugoslavia created infrastructure and modernization projects in recently decolonized African and Asian countries to facilitate the movement of people and ideas. Through these projects, Yugoslavs lived in these countries for short periods, leaving generational links between the countries and their citizens. Arguably, one of the most significant projects was the student scholarship scheme, which brought students from what would become NAM countries—including Burma, Jordan, Algeria, Ghana, Kenya, Pakistan, and Congo—to study in Yugoslavia as early as 1950. The Yugoslav government provided these students free tuition, room and board, and a monthly stipend for living expenses. The influx of thousands of students from the decolonized world not only advanced the direct links among NAM member states, but also introduced external Blackness and Brownness to Yugoslavia, exposing how the country was deeply invested in its whiteness despite official claims to the contrary.2 This push to incorporate and find intersecting points of solidarity through global “brotherhood and unity” with Black and Brown brothers in NAM countries eventually created nuance in Yugoslav associations with Blackness. Forging these relationships created paths for eventual Yugoslav association with revolutionary forms of Blackness that worked in opposition to its canonical underpinnings, morphing Blackness instead to be associated with revolutionary forms. This meta form of Blackness has roots in the 1960s and 1970s. It triangulated through the African diaspora in the Caribbean, Western Europe, and the United States, where the mantle of Blackness of pride and mainstream Black culture eventually became a form of “cultural traffic” that traversed transatlantically. It came to embody cool in Yugoslavia until it was associated once again with revolt and an acceptance of internal Yugoslav difference in the early 2000s.3

These nuanced local associations with revolutionary forms of Blackness existed in spite of the persistence of more pernicious forms. In post-Yugoslav space, for example, Romani populations are regularly referred to as “Black” because of perceptions of their physical difference, despite its inherently flawed logic. In fact, the politically correct term Rom or more offensive term “gypsy,” (cigan in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian) is associated with having dark skin whereas the term “white gypsy” (beli cigan/rom in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian) relies on colorism to denote an unexpected proximity to whiteness. This internal form of Blackness is very familiar in Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav settings owing to the fact that various populations considered Roma are populous. Romani communities are spread throughout Europe in general, and with the 2004 eastern expansion of the European Union, Roma became the largest minority in Europe. With that recognition, came a broad association with their systemic marginalization and disadvantage in European societies. This sign of misfortune as a Romani attribute has a long history in Yugoslav space, however, visible most notably in film. As such, their Blackness, similar to Afro-Albanians, is one of epidermalization and marginalization. They have been historically positioned as distant from the whiteness of majorities in Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav societies. It is likewise maintained by members of the community who affirm their Blackness through a recognition and acceptance of their minority position in their societies, which has fostered some compelling transatlantic solidarities among transnational “Black” populations—primarily African Americans, highlighting that transnational Blackness is intertwined both with the racial contract and global (mis)understandings of racialized difference.

One additional form of “Blackness” in post-Yugoslav space does not rely on a global color line or distance from the majority, rather it refers to Balkan marginalization and former Yugoslav nations in particular. This position of the Southeast European nations as only marginally European has a long history in Europe.4 Contemporarily, this image of the Balkans resurfaced as a result of the civil wars of the 1990s and again with Eastern EU expansion. This difference is regularly visible in comparative media portrayals that present the superiority of the West and the barbarity of the Balkans by way of its politics, culture, and people.5 With this “situational Blackness,” “Balkan” becomes inflected in comparison to Western Europe.

As Blackness and racialization are inherently linked, the recognition of not just one but various forms of Blackness in Yugoslav space open possibilities for a localized understanding of how Blackness functions as a result of and beyond the global color line. This glimpse into the forms of Blackness reveals tensions and solidarities in its transnational and local forms, carrying with it its own implications and challenges. From personal experiences, travel in the region, studies, and interactions with internal and exogenous “Black” individuals in former Yugoslav spaces, Blackness is revealed to have powerful resonance despite a lack of regional association and canonical underpinnings of race, whiteness, and Blackness. However, as this short piece reveals, the various forms and uses of Blackness in Yugoslavia and post-Yugoslav space are not only applicable, but productive and relevant, as they situate Yugoslavia both regionally in Europe as well as globally. If we can document that these spaces have been influenced by global flows of information, empires, and even slavery, then the attendant consequences of such institutions and means of knowledge production have likewise had an impact as well.

  1. The name of my subject has been changed for the purposes of anonymity.
  2. Milorad Lazić, “Neki problemi stranih studenata na jugoslovenskim univerzitetima šezdesetih godina XX veka, s posebnim osvrtom na afričke studente.” Godišnjak za društvenu istoriju 2 (2009): 61-78.
  3. Tricia Rose, “Forward” in Henry J. Elam and Kennell A. Jackson, Black Cultural Traffic: Crossroads in Global Performance and Popular Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2005), vi-viii.
  4. For more on the subject of the systematic and historical othering of Southeast Europe specifically and Eastern Europe generation, see the following works: Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994); Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997); and Tomislav Longinović, Vampire Nation: Violence as Cultural Imaginary (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
  5. For a collection of such stories, see “A Year in Bad Reporting about the Balkans” by Lily Lynch in “Balkanist” <https://balkanist.net/year-bad-reporting-balkans/> Last accessed June 6, 2019.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Sunnie Rucker-Chang

Sunnie Rucker-Chang is an Assistant Professor of Slavic and East European Studies in the German Studies Department and Director of the European Studies Program at the University of Cincinnati. Her primary interests lie in contemporary cultural movements and identity formation in Central and Southeast Europe. In her work, she examines how literary and filmic works contribute to cultural landscapes and offer insight into the formation of nations and nationalities, particularly as they relate to minority-majority relations and constructs of difference. She is the co-editor of Chinese Migrants in Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe (Routledge, 2011).

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